Chapter 23: Dueling witches
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Bixby
I manage to take about five steps before I hear Aunt Tara’s voice. “Look at me, Jane.” It’s literally compelling. So, of course, I stop and turn around. Like I have any choice.
But before I can look at Aunt Tara, I hear a growling noise. I look over toward Honoria. And there, standing beside her slumped-over body, is Pluto. His blue flames usually look a bit washed out in daytime. Not today. Today they form a bright and deadly aura all around him. And he’s growling at Miranda.
I have no idea why he’s here. He’s not part of my plan. Some idea of Asenath’s, I guess? But I am ever so happy to see him.
“You’re dead, bitch,” he says, and then charges at Tara. Hurrah!
Aunt Tara’s still sitting up on the ground. She doesn’t bat an eye as Pluto charges her. Instead, in a little girl voice, she looks at Pluto and says, “What a nice puppy. Puppy want to play with me?”
Pluto comes to a halt. He just stands there, about eight feet from Aunt Tara.
She stands up, and then kneels down, all the time keeping her eyes on Pluto. Holding out her hand as if to pet Pluto, she says, “And what does puppy want?”
With horror, I realize what Aunt Tara is doing to Pluto, mesmerizing him with her eyes. I move to interfere. Without even looking at me, Aunt Tara says, “Jane, stop right there.” So I do. It’s so weird. I want to interfere, I want to stop Aunt Tara from doing whatever she has in mind for Pluto, but I have no desire or ability to move my legs. I can think about doing it, but I don’t seem to have any way to actually do it. It’s like I don’t know how to walk. I’m caught in place.
Aunt Tara has been gazing at Pluto all this time. Now she says, “So that’s what you want, Pluto. You want to be a normal dog. Well, just give yourself over to me, and I’ll make you one.”
Pluto starts moving again, walking forward until the tip of his nose is just about to touch Aunt Tara’s outstretched hand. And then it’s as if all the blue flame is being pulled forward off his body, to the point where his nose and Aunt Tara’s fingers don’t quite meet. In a moment, Pluto looks just like a normal basset hound. He nuzzles Aunt Tara’s hand, gives a joyful bark, and then goes off, wagging his tail.
Happy, happy Pluto. He’s now a normal dog. If only I were a normal human, like one who could actually walk. Now that she’s neutralized Honoria and Pluto, I guess I’m next on Aunt Tara’s list. I dread Aunt Tara looking at me again and just making me do whatever she wants.
To my surprise, she ignores me. Instead, she stands up straight and looks over to Asenath’s farm. She calls out, “Time to come out from hiding, Miranda.”
I can twist my body enough to look over to the farm. Miranda and Asenath are both standing there, just inside the stone wall. Miranda is looking grim. She clambers over the wall, faces Aunt Tara, and says, “I don’t need to hide from you, Hestia. Nor do I need to send innocent girls as baits and traps to snare my enemies. For I am Miranda Milan, who has walked the worlds of magic and made legends from her life, while you are but a petty nuisance. It’s time I finally ended your life. And I’ll start by forcing you to remove the curse from this girl.” And with that, Miranda comes over and takes my hand.
Almost immediately, I can move my legs again. I’m free. And then the very next moment, I’m seized with a sudden weakness. I feel dizzy, sick, and cold. I’m having trouble standing, and have to drop to my hands and knees, letting go of Miranda.
I hear Miranda’s voice. “What’s happening to me?” It sounds shaky and weak, and I realize that she’s also fallen on her hands and knees besides me. I look over at her. She looks pale, with sweat forming on her brow.
Aunt Tara’s voice closes in on us. “All these years, and you still don’t understand why you’ve never managed to kill me, Miranda. It’s because I’m smarter than you. Once I found out you were here, I studied everything there was to know about the magic here. And then I set a trap for you with this girl. Oh, all the easy ways failed, you’re not entirely stupid, Miranda. But you didn’t realize that the longer you were in Jane’s presence, the more effective the death spell would be when I triggered it. I was just waiting for you to touch her in my presence, fool!”
Miranda tries to put some energy into her voice as she replies, “But I’m not dead yet, Hestia. Your spell isn’t that good. It’s only a matter of time before I figure out how to defeat it.” Her voice is still a bit shaky.
Aunt Tara must be only a foot or two away, given how close her voice sounds. “True, you aren’t dying all that fast. But I’m willing to wait. You know, it’ll get agonizingly painful as it goes along. By the end, you’ll want to die.”
I already feel sick. I can feel my life draining from me. I’m not willing to die. Not yet. And although my original plan is in ruins, I still have one more trick up my sleeve. I reach into my jacket pocket and turn on the siren.
I’d outlined my plan to Asenath. I’d clued Miranda in on her role. But I’d told neither about how I planned to drag in Cindy and her dragon if it became necessary.
The siren doesn’t run for long. Aunt Tara reaches down and yanks the siren out of my pocket before silencing it somehow. But it doesn’t matter. All Cindy needed was a second or two.
I hear her cry out, “Jane! What has happened to you?” She runs over and the next thing I know I’m sitting on the ground, with Cindy beside me, hugging me. For a moment I feel better.
Then the death curse sets in again, and I feel weak. Worse, I see Cindy turn pale and look pained. Too late I remember that the death curse is pointed at all three of us!
And then Cindy seems to rally. Color flows into her face, and she gathers me back into her arms, and I feel strength returning. Cindy says to Aunt Tara, “I don’t know who you are, but you’re going to die for doing this to Jane.”
From a short distance away comes a new voice. “If you let them go, I might spare your life. Otherwise, your death will be very painful, and that will free them anyhow.” It’s the dragon. I turn, and see it standing there in the forest, its huge body somehow wedged between the trees. If a dragon can look happy at the thought of killing its lover’s enemy, this one does.
Aunt Tara chuckles. I look over at her. She’s looking at the dragon, no fear on her face, and I have to wonder what else she’s got up her sleeve, as if that shirt has any. Aunt Tara says, “As I told Miranda, I’ve researched any threat she could bring to bear against me. I know all about you, dragon. And guess what I have for you?” She holds out her right hand, and suddenly a walking stick appears in her hand. It’s a fine old piece, topped with a silver dragon’s head. One that looks just like the dragon. Exactly like it. I have a sick feeling in my stomach as I realize what it probably is, the legendary stick carried by Rebecca Farnsworth Maxwell, Netherfield’s most famous witch, the real thing, not some imitation. Aunt Tara really is on top of things. And here I used to think she was so stupid that the only thing she was on top of was Uncle Jeff, and that only when he gave her directions.
Aunt Tara brings the stick forward until it is in front of her. “And now, dragon,” she says, “it’s time for you to go to sleep.”
I look over at the dragon. It seems unaffected at first. And then its eyes close, ever so slowly, and its body sinks to the ground. And all the strength that Cindy sent flowing into me vanishes, and the weakness and nausea and cold return. Cindy’s still holding me, but her grip has slackened and she’s shivering. We’re dying, all three of us, Cindy, Miranda, and me. My plan has failed. Unless Asenath can do something. But Asenath can’t do anything beyond the limits of her land. And we are outside the stone wall that marks its bounds.
Aunt Tara speaks. “It’s not fast enough. You’re just not dying fast enough, Miranda. So let me give you some help.”
I look up, long enough to see Aunt Tara swinging the walking stick. And then it crashes into Cindy’s leg, and she lets out a scream of pain. Somehow I feel it, too: pain and another jolt of weakness, and I gasp. I’m not ready for the second blow that falls, and this time it falls on me. The left side of my chest bursts into horrific pain. It’s so bad I want to die, and I can feel something pulling at me, telling me to die. And then the third blow hits, striking Miranda somewhere. Just like when it hit Cindy, I can feel it somehow, and can tell a little more of my life has leaked away.
Unlike Cindy and me, who have cried out each time one of us has been struck, Miranda hasn’t reacted to any of the blows, not even the one that struck her. This annoys Aunt Tara. She scowls and exclaims, “Playing the stoic, are we, Miranda? So here’s the deal. You drop all your defenses and let yourself die, and I’ll spare these two. They mean nothing to me. Or, you can continue to defy me, and I’ll just keep beating the crap out of all three of you until life is a misery you’ll want to leave. What do you say, Miranda?”
Nothing happens for several seconds. And then Miranda, ever so slowly, picks herself off the ground and rises to her feet. I can feel how much energy it’s costing her, how much she hurts, because we’re linked together by the death curse. And yet still she rises. She stands up, looks Aunt Tara in the eye, and says, “Fuck off, Hestia. I’ll figure out a way to kill you yet.”
Aunt Tara shrugs her shoulder. “Have it your way,” she says. She swings the walking stick again, catching Cindy in the stomach. Cindy moans and falls over until she’s lying on the ground. Miranda staggers and falls. And I can feel our time running out.
Then perhaps the last voice I expect to hear speaks up. “I guess it’s up to me, now.”
Simple sentence. Makes no sense to me. I turn to look at whoever it was that spoke.
It’s Honoria Blood. She’s alive! She’s even standing! Barely, but she’s standing. She’s leaning against the stone wall, using her left arm and leg to hold herself up. She’s keeping all her weight off her right leg, which dangles uselessly. Her skin is almost bloodlessly white, except in her cheeks, which look inflamed by fever. She resembles some ghastly consumptive from a nineteenth century novel. And Pluto is at her feet, happily wagging his tail and looking up at her.
Aunt Tara’s laugh is cruel. “And what do you intend to do, Reverend Blood? I’ve already defeated you once. You’ve no magic of your own, anyhow.”
Honoria lets a smile play across her face, no matter it is drawn in pain. “Jane Harris had a good plan, Tara or Hestia or whatever your name is. She couldn’t think of everything, but she got us all here. And Asenath Shattuck and I made a few improvements on her plan, such as adding Pluto.”
“I see how well that worked,” Aunt Tara tartly replies.
“Ah, but there you see a difference in philosophy.” Honoria’s smile returns. “Jane devised a plan to defeat you. She didn’t trust any of us, entirely, so she didn’t tell any of us her whole plan. And so she has been defeated by the flaws her own plan. Just as you will be defeated by the flaws in yours.”
Aunt Tara’s voice turns scornful. “And how will that happen?”
“Oh, like this.” Honoria stretches out her right arm, as if to grab something. “That walking stick doesn’t properly belong to you. I’m claiming it for its rightful owner.”
Aunt Tara gives a cry of sheer and total astonishment as the walking stick leaps from her hands and into Honoria’s outstretched one. Once Honoria holds it, her smile broadens as she looks over at the dragon and says, “Now, dragon, time to wake up. Seize this woman and put her in the field beyond that belongs to Asenath Shattuck.”
The dragon’s eyelids start to flutter. The next instant, a dragon tail shots out from behind the dragon and wraps around Aunt Tara, binding her so she cannot move or speak. It lifts her up, and transports her into Asenath’s domain.
Suddenly life is flowing back into me again. The death spell is still there, but it’s losing force. After all that’s happened, it’s so exhilarating that I lose track of what’s happening around me, only to find Cindy carrying me over the wall into Asenath’s lands. She’s looking down at me, smiling in my face, and I’m so happy that when she puts me down, I just grab hold of her and give her a big kiss. Man, I am so happy! And to judge from the smile on her face, so is Cindy.
I straighten up and look around. As it turns out, we’re all here now, in Asenath’s field. Asenath, Honoria, Cindy, and I are all standing free. The dragon is also with us, and it has both Aunt Tara and Miranda bound up in its tails. (Magical creature, it can have as many tails as it wants!) Not to forget Pluto, who is jumping up and down, licking Honoria’s hand and face as she lowers herself to a sitting position, not without a grimace of pain or two as she does so.
Asenath speaks. “This is my land, bought with my flesh and blood. I will have no other blood shed here. Apart from that, I let you judge, Honoria. These are your people. What is to be done with them?”
Honoria tells Pluto to sit, and then looks around. She settles her gaze on me. “The death curse is gone, Jane,” she tells me.
I nod. I can feel it’s gone. “Aunt Tara removed it?”
Honoria shakes her head, and glances over at Aunt Tara, bound in a dragon’s tail, before she replies. “No. She’d use it as a bargaining chip if she could, I’m sure. But between the dragon and Asenath, they were able to break the curse without killing you, or either of the other two.”
Cindy nudges me. “I think I just helped save your life,” she tells me in a soft voice.
Despite how softly she said it, Honoria heard. “Indeed, you and your dragon have played a role, Cynthia Van Schacht. As did Miranda. As did Pluto. As did Asenath. As did I. So I hope you and your dragon will not dispute that the settlement of what happened here is up to Jane alone.”
There’s a stunned silence. Even Miranda and Aunt Tara, imprisoned as they are, seem to freeze up in wonder. And then the dragon asks, “Why Jane Harris?”
Honoria isn’t taking her eyes off of me. “Because she’s the victim of the quarrel between Miranda and this one,” she gestures indicating Aunt Tara, “Hestia or Tart or whatever her name is. Because the rest of you could take advantage of her with magic, and she can’t fight back with the same weapons. Because even so, she got you all here by some intelligent planning. Because Asenath and I say so, I suppose.” Honoria pauses, taking a deep breath. “And because I’m going to charge her to do the right thing, and I expect she’ll take that charge seriously.” She looks around at everyone. “Any of you, Miranda or what’s-her-name excepted, who want to argue the matter?” No one stirs. Honoria looks back at me. “It’s up to you, Jane. Pass judgment on us all.”
End of chapter twenty-two
(Well, would you look at that! You could knock me over with a feather. Though, on second thought, how did Honoria do that? Never mind. I just want to see Jane give Aunt Tart her just desserts . . . in the next chapter.)